Copywriting is an art, not a science

by Tom Albrighton 24 August 2009 Copywriting

I think copywriters are getting too scientific. In our anxiety to sit at the top management table, we’ve started to talk the language of sales and marketing – targeting, RoI, metrics – and position our words as another cog in the commercial machine. Direct-response copywriting is all about using words precisely to get a specific reaction from the audience, and approaches such as NLP can lead us into a mechanistic view of the writer-audience relationship (I say this, so you’ll do that). Finally, SEO imposes further discipline on us, twisting our words with tags so they’ll please the Googlebots.

Of course, this is largely what distinguishes copywriting from other writing – it must fulfil a practical function, not just provide entertainment for the reader or an outlet for the writer. But copywriting is still writing, and what makes it good can’t always be reduced to a formula. So I’d like to talk about some of the things you might look for in a copywriter that can’t necessarily be quantified or analysed, but still might make a big difference to your bottom line.

  • Stories. Stories enchant us with a power rooted in childhood, or perhaps even the collective unconscious. They’re utterly compelling to listen to (or read), and they help us understand complex events and relationships with simple words and concepts. Good storytellers will always be able to command attention and make sure a message sticks. In marketing, stories can lead listeners from their situation to the course of action you want them to take (for example, by describing the typical experience of a satisfied customer of yours).
  • Guinness’ white horses: poetic, ineffable, brilliant

    Guinness’ white horses: poetic, ineffable, brilliant

  • Mystery. A good copywriter should be able to give reasons for every decision they make. Yet there are some choices that just can’t be justified rationally, even though they’re right. Slogans like ‘Who knows the secret of the Black Magic box?’ or scripts like that of the Guinness surfer ad resist being interpreted or decoded; they just are. This may be because they resonate with both the conscious and the unconscious simultaneously.
  • Poetry. How do you choose between ‘light’, ‘glow’ and ‘radiance’? If you’re like me, you know which one is right in a given situation, but perhaps can’t explain why. Copywriters sometimes have to fall back on a sense of le mot juste to get them through – but they’re always aware that there’s a choice to be made, and that there’s always a right answer.
  • Music. A good piece of writing needs to have a consistent pace and a recognisable structure, yet within that it needs to be dynamic, flowing and vivid. A good copywriter knows how to vary the length of paragraphs, sentences, phrases and words to preserve forward movement while retaining the element of surprise – just like a gifted melodist.
  • Sensuality. Which tastes better – (a) cheese on toast, or (b) rich, creamy Double Gloucester melted over warm, crusty granary bread? The copywriter knows how to use the language of the senses to fire the reader’s imagination. This helps to make the course of action you want them to take (e.g. buying a product) more compelling and appealing than their current reality. Experienced copywriters know how to bring this type of appeal even when selling intangibles like B2B services.
  • Tone. This does get some attention, but not nearly enough. Looking at marketing projects in isolation, it’s easy to forget that your audience usually gets a sense of your brand gradually, not at a stroke. Their experience stretches across multiple ‘touchpoints’(your website, your adverts, social media) and may involve several interactions before they buy. A copywriter can make sure the experience is consistent, congruent and confidence-building, no matter how disparate it is.

I studied literature and worked in publishing, so some of this is perhaps personal bias. But I think copywriters shouldn’t be afraid to come out and say that what they propose is right aesthetically as well as rationally. Good clients would respect it, and the world of marketing would be more interesting for it too.

Tags: , , , ,